Announcements, gift cards and glimmers of hope
Returning from Houston to Austin nearly three weeks after the biggest rainy event in American history, I noticed that the radio commercials had a constant chorus. “After Hurricane Harvey Houstonians are just starting to get back on their feet and we can help you with our prices now lower than ever / lowest interest rate ever / zero down furniture / box spring free with the purchase of a mattress / car loan without a credit check. “
As people rally for manure houses, serve meals, distribute supplies, and even provide free legal advice and services, businesses are looking to capitalize on a 500-year flood marketing opportunity.
As is often the case with corporate shenanigans, Walmart takes the cake. In the aftermath of the floods, Walmart offered Houstonians $ 400 gift cards through a program administered by the Red Cross. The $ 400 material benefit should not be laughed at, and the poor recovering from disastrous floods should not be asked to refuse free money for political reasons. If I believed companies had a soul, I would say Walmart was trying to get rid of its conscience. But companies don’t have a soul, they have profit motives. Walmart owes Houstonians a lot more than $ 400 gift cards, but you can bet a microeconomic model somewhere shows that those gift cards, at that exact amount, will maximize profits.
While doing relief work in America’s fourth largest and most diverse city, it’s clear Harvey was a socio-political disaster, even though the rain was a force of nature. In wealthy neighborhoods, Houstonians say, “We just got lucky, I guess.” But the neighborhoods that were truly devastated by this hurricane are those where structural poverty and racism show their effects most cruelly.
Despite fantasies of free markets, housing choices are limited by income, and thanks to the political power of business owners, tenants have virtually no rights in Texas. But while normal people have limited rights to secure adequate housing in Houston, developers and landowners are free to build as they please. Famous, Houston has no zoning laws.
At 672 square miles, the geographic area of the city proper is larger than New York or Los Angeles, but has far fewer people. Much of this area, which was previously swamps and marshes, is paved. Where peatlands could have absorbed rainwater, an impermeable blanket funnels water into bayous – themselves often sealed with cement. This style of growth cuts costs for investors and leaves Houston citizens who are “less fortunate” in the lowest and most at risk floodplains.
Deregulated urban growth also means that the petrochemical facilities that screen Houston’s east side can be located where profit is maximized, exposing their low-income neighbors to toxins in the air – and, in the event of a flood, in the ‘water.
It is not only the deterioration of the housing stock that puts the poorest at risk, but also the well-documented chronic health consequences of life in a city whose land use codes are shaped by oil interests. . These costs, which are not collectively shared by the city, state or country that would supposedly benefit from the economic contribution of the petrochemical industry, represent a cruel and hidden tax on the residents of East Houston, effectively limiting their ability to leave their neighborhoods or to exert political pressure on governments. which could improve environmental protections.
The beginnings of state contributions to the Houston takeover, which are perhaps best exemplified by the appointment of former Shell CEO Marvin Odum, the city’s Harvey takeover czar, are terribly disturbing. It’s hard to believe that the contradiction here, between oil interests and the health of Houstonians, is not apparent to the man who appointed Odum, Mayor Sylvester Turner.
While citizens may have little power to step in and simultaneously rebuild their lives, they may reject the idea that a business-state alliance will save us now or protect us in future disasters. Walmart – with its iconic position in contemporary political economy, poverty wages, anti-worker lobbying, and environmentally disastrous transnational shipping system – is a fitting target in the effort to say another way is possible. A Walmart employee paid the entry-level minimum wage of $ 7.25 an hour only earns $ 14,500 a year. If that employee is a single parent with two children, their household is living $ 4,837 below the federal poverty line. Even though they are one of the lucky few who get the $ 400 credit, their families still live in extreme poverty.
Houstonians, Texans, and the wider community should grab these gift cards if they can, but collectively we can laugh at the idea that Walmart cares about helping. The poverty that has made people’s lives so vulnerable to flooding is actively produced by Walmart, Shell, and the other companies that like to produce these wellness ad campaigns claiming to help Houston get back on their feet.
Houston’s recovery effort was led not by companies, but by people willing to work collectively and help each other. This cooperation and mutual aid offer a glimpse of a new way of organizing our cities so that they are more humane, more egalitarian and more resilient. The immense generosity observed in this process shows us that another world is possible. But to fulfill that promise, we must reject the logic of companies that put people at risk in the first place.